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Send Out The Doves: 'Noah' Lands On Solid Ground

Ila (Emma Watson) and her husband, Shem, are two passengers aboard the ark built by Noah to escape God's flood in <em>Noah,</em> Darren Aronofsky's imagining of the biblical tale.
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures
Ila (Emma Watson) and her husband, Shem, are two passengers aboard the ark built by Noah to escape God's flood in Noah, Darren Aronofsky's imagining of the biblical tale.

The story of Noah's Ark is getting blockbuster treatment in Hollywood's new biblical epic Noah. Darren Aronofsky's film about the Old Testament shipbuilder has been sparking controversy — but there's no denying that the Great Flood, digitized, is a pretty great flood.

"In the beginning there was ... nothing," say the first words you see on-screen, and then there's, well, everything: a swirling cosmos, Adam and Eve, a fall from grace, a fall of angels, teeming industrial cities spreading so much sin and darkness that the creator has second thoughts — which he communicates to 500-year-old family man Noah in a nightmare.

Noah sees a planet submerged and, inspired by that vision, tells his wife and three sons they have work to do. If only it were that simple.

The Old Testament story is short on the sort of detail required to flesh out two-plus hours, but the filmmakers have happily supplied it — everything from why the lions wouldn't just eat the gazelles to what a real ark might look like (no prow, because it's not going anywhere, it just has to float). Also, how much help a family of five would need to build a structure 300 cubits by 50 cubits by 30 cubits.

You may not remember the movie's six-limbed stone giants from Sunday school — a bunch of literally earthbound angels who can trace their cinematic lineage to those talking trees in The Lord of the Rings — but they're certainly helpful in ark-building, and in ark-protecting when a snarling king from Cain's side of the family of man shows up with an army.

There is a lot of inventing going on here, raising a flood of criticism in literalist circles that did not flow when, say, Danny Kaye played a musical-comedy Noah in Two By Two, or when Bill Cosby did his "What's a cubit?" routine.

Take the Bible seriously, without winks or jokes, and you court arguments with traditionalists about whether you've gotten it right. Darren Aronofsky's tree-hugging, intimately intense move, I'd argue, gets things righter than it's reasonable to expect a big Hollywood blockbuster to. Oh, there are things I wish the director hadn't done — when a little girl asks Russell Crowe's Noah to sing her to sleep, all I could think was, "Didn't she see Les Miserables?" And Anthony Hopkins' Methuselah does more scrounging for berries than is entirely seemly. But when the deluge comes, it lives up to Scripture: "All the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens opened."

At which point, we and the family are sharing an ark with an unraveling Noah, barely post-traumatic in his stress, and seemingly channeling his biblical forebears Abraham and Job, and maybe a couple of the unhinged characters from previous Aronofsky movies. All of which makes the film Noah psychologically credible — his behavior is very much what you might expect of a man who has just condemned millions of screaming souls to watery graves. And it makes the film unpredictably suspenseful, which is dramatically the most welcome thing you could ask of a biblical epic.

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Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.